Notes for an address at the 2018 Rendez-vous fransaskois

Saskatoon, Saskatchewan -
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Ladies and gentlemen.

It’s a real pleasure for me to be speaking to such a great group of people here this evening.

I’d like to begin by acknowledging that the land on which we have gathered today is Treaty 6 territory, which is the traditional territory of Cree peoples and the homeland of the Métis Nation. We pay our respects to the First Nations and Métis ancestors of this land and reaffirm our relationships with one another.

I think the Rendez-vous’ “United in Diversity” theme this year is very appropriate in this new era of reconciliation, unity and solidarity.

I’d also like to congratulate Denis Simard on his confirmation as President of the Assemblée communautaire fransaskoise (ACF), and Ronald Labrecque on his appointment as ACF’s Executive Director.

The late Rolland Pinsonneault, a passionate advocate for Saskatchewan’s French-speaking community, once said, “For every just cause, there is a champion.” We need noble defenders of that Fransaskois community like you, and I’m proud to be here with you to celebrate your community’s achievements.

Today we will be talking about your history and your pride, about education and reconciliation with First Peoples, about Francophone immigration, and about my priorities as Commissioner of Official Languages.

For those of you who don’t know me, I come from Sainte-Anne-des-Chênes, a very small village in Manitoba just outside Winnipeg. When I was growing up, my village was 100% Francophone, and yet there was no French school for me to go to. My parents and many others fought for this right, and my brothers had the opportunity to be educated in their mother tongue.

I spent a large part of my career teaching, doing research and being a university administrator, at institutions such as the Université de Saint-Boniface and the Centre d’études franco-canadiennes de l’Ouest in Winnipeg. I was also director general of the Société franco-manitobaine, which advocates on behalf of Manitoba’s French-speaking community.

In 2004, I was appointed assistant deputy minister of the Bureau de l’éducation française in Manitoba’s Department of Education, Citizenship and Youth. And from 2005 to 2009, I was executive director of the Council of Ministers of Education of Canada.

In June 2012, I became the ninth president and vice-chancellor of the Université de Moncton in New Brunswick, the largest French-language university outside of Quebec.

I’ve spent my life studying and defending linguistic duality. That passion has made me the man I am today, and so I was very honoured and proud to be appointed Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages last December.

I travel from across the country to meet with businesspeople, young Canadians, politicians, researchers, community leaders and Francophones like you.

Today marks a milestone in your history. The Rendez-vous fransaskois, the Fête fransaskoise festival and the Gala de la Fransasque showcase the spirit and vitality of your community—so much so that they’re now attracting the curiosity and interest of English-speaking population.

When I spoke to the Association canadienne d’éducation de langue française at their annual conference in September, I talked about the teacher’s role as a cultural envoy and an agent of linguistic and cultural socialization. I also talked about the crucial role that school administrators play as leaders of change for teaching staff.

In addition to ensuring academic success, French-language schools focus on each student’s personal and social development of all students. They help students develop their identity, define who they are, acknowledge themselves as Francophones and develop a sense of belonging to both their language and their culture. In Saskatchewan’s French schools, students live their culture!

However, like the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads, linguistic insecurity is still an issue in Francophone minority communities and for people who speak French as a second language. That’s why I say that the varieties of French in Canada are closely connected to the social reality of the Francophone communities that speak them. Our accents have no bearing on the meanings of words. Rather, like melodious notes, they enrich the soundtrack of Canada’s Francophonie. It’s important to encourage all French speakers in Saskatchewan—both first- and second-language speakers—to use their French and to live fully in that language.

I’m pleased to see the widespread culture of leadership and responsibility in your school board, and I agree with its chair, Alpha Barry, when he says that the Fransaskois school system is at the dawn of a new era of hope.

You have always fought for your children to be educated in French. And the fight to improve the quality of French-language instruction is still ongoing, if the nationwide shortage of teachers—of French as both a first and second language—is any indication. There is nothing “folkloric” about your identity and your fight is nothing short of heroic. I stand with you wholeheartedly. You are the creators of your own destiny.

I’d like to talk now about the importance of Francophone immigration, starting with a brief overview. From the shores of the Atlantic to the coast of British Columbia, to the far reaches of the North, Francophones have left an impressive mark on Canadian history through the establishment of vibrant communities.

In the early 1900s, Saskatchewan’s French-speaking population stood at 6%. In the decades that followed, pioneers left everything behind to head to the Prairies and had to deal with a political and social environment that was often hostile to Francophones. The construction of the railway ushered in many changes, including the influx of non-Francophone migrants, which added to the province’s diversity but also quickly made French speakers a minority.

Another key element of Saskatchewan’s rich heritage and dynamic culture is its Indigenous peoples and languages. Reconciliation has become a government priority in recent years, and I think it’s absolutely critical to the success of this province and of this country. Promoting and protecting language rights is not a zero-sum game. Canada can and should support its first languages and its official languages in ways that correspond to the specific needs, historical contexts and local realities of Indigenous communities and official language communities across the country.

Similarly, promoting Western Canada’s Indigenous heritage and its Francophone heritage is not a zero-sum game, either. It is possible—even preferable—to support multiple historical narratives, including one that recognizes Francophone contributions to the development of your province, one that recognizes Indigenous contributions to the development of your province and, of course, one that celebrates examples of cooperation between Indigenous peoples and Francophone minorities, while acknowledging past difficulties and injustices.

For example, the Métis, who spoke French, English, Michif, Bungee, Cree, Ojibway and Nakota, among other languages, played a critical role in bringing First Nations and newcomers closer together, acting as interpreters and diplomats. Thanks in part to them, treaties are now recognized as an integral part of the shared heritage of all who live here now. We are all treaty people.

French-speaking Métis immigrated to the plains of Saskatchewan in the 18th century to escape the harsh constraints imposed by Ottawa. As you know, French was excluded from schools, legislation and the courts for a long time afterward. Today, your province attracts Francophones from all over the world and is home to thousands of enthusiastic francophiles who are eager to participate actively in community life.

Immigration has had an immense impact on Canada’s population growth, cultural wealth and socio-economic development. If we are to successfully attract, welcome and integrate newly arrived French speakers into our communities, our workplaces, our schools and our lives, all levels of government need to work together with Francophone minority communities. It’s heartening to see that ACF can count on the dedication of so many French-speaking immigrants.

I believe that Canada must continue to be a leader and a beacon for linguistic duality and support for official language minority communities. Needless to say, I want us to take action on current and anticipated key files, in the best interests of Canadians.

To that end, I’ll be focusing on the following three priorities in the coming years.

First, I’ll be urging federal institutions to develop an understanding of the factors for success so that they can break down the barriers that are preventing the Act’s objectives from being met.

Second, I’ll be working with federal institutions and partners to ensure that the Action Plan for Official Languages 2018-2023: Investing in Our Future achieves the expected outcomes.

And third, I’ll be calling for the government to “walk the talk” and effect a meaningful modernization of the Official Languages Act so that it reflects both Canada’s legacy and its future.

The last time the Act underwent a major revision, there was no Internet or social media!

Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the first Official Languages Act. The timing has never been better for the government to amend the current Act.

Based on public consultations that generated more than 4,000 responses, I have concluded that the Act must be amended to reflect the many changes that have shaped Canadian society since the last major revision of the Act in 1988. We need legislation that proactively addresses Canada’s changing realities.

In conclusion, linguistic duality is a rich part of Canada’s heritage—a heritage that also belongs to its young people. Being able to speak both of our official languages is important for young Canadians as they prepare for their future, and having access to post-secondary education in French is a key element to ensuring the strength of the Fransaskois community.

Official language communities are changing, and the organizations supporting them in their development need to change with them. I’m glad to see that ACF has committed to doing just that.

Governments—and federal institutions in particular—must stay attuned to the community’s priorities if they want to meet its needs and contribute to its development. As Commissioner of Official Languages, I am committed to continuing my work to support the development and advancement of your community.

I’d like to close by saying that your pride and the vitality of your community are true sources of inspiration for French-speaking minority communities across Canada.

On that note, I hope you have a great day!